Pruning this month’s concert calendar for the not-to-be-missed
The Shins seem to belong to an older generation of indie rockers. The sunny, wordy guitar rock of Wincing the Night Away is about as far a cry from what the kids now listen to as Garden State is from Drive.
Cool factor notwithstanding, their 2007 commercial breakthrough stands the test of time pretty darn well. Even the most thoroughly synth-doused, club beat sampling music blog fanatic could not help falling for “Phantom Limb“‘s oh-woah-ooh hook, tambourines and all. And Oh, Inverted World‘s “New Slang“? An enduring staple of acoustic guitar strumming first-date seduction, eleven years later.
Port of Morrow, the band’s first album in five years, is perhaps their grandest effort yet. Beginning with the high-octane “Rifle’s Spiral,” frontman James Mercer sets to work with his abundant lyricism, spitting lines on the order of “rise from your burning Fiat” and “you were always to be a dagger floating/ straight to their heart.”
Amidst the pleasure model power pop of “Simple Song,” 41-year-old Mercer recalls a moment from his youth.
Remember walking a mile to your house/ Aglow in the dark?/ I made a fumbling play for your heart/ And the act struck a spark/ You wore a charm on the chain that I stole/ Especial for you/ Love’s such a delicate thing that we do/ With nothing to prove/ Which I never knew.
Refreshingly, Mercer seems to be a man drifting away from bitterness with age. He sings these lines with a passion not to be found in his famously subdued earlier work.
Crisply (and, from the sound of it, expensively) produced and effectively sentimental throughout, Port of Morrow sounds as though it is picking up where a mid-solo career Paul McCartney left off. Five years ago, The Shins were playing stadiums without a sound big enough to fill them. With Port of Morrow, now, they are more than fully equipped. Worth the drive, and not just for a return to “New Slang.”
Even in the alternative music world, having a formal education in music is not the norm. Far from it. And given the staggeringly complex, genre-twisting compositions that a self-taught adolescent with nothing but a bit torrent account and the right ear can dream up, holding a degree sometimes seems rather superfluous.
In Los Angeles-based Julia Holter’s atmospheric jams, her academic training is readily, and proudly, apparent. The orchestral, electronica-based compositions draw from a powerful store of highbrow component parts – Robert Ashley-inspired experimental minimalism, improv jazz, non-Western harmonies, classical instrumentation and the like.
Fortunately, Holter possesses the rare ability to balance her encyclopedic reach with strict self-control. Her sound is educated and finely nuanced, never ostentatious or exclusive – a much appreciated reminder of what learned music writing has to offer.
Her March release, Ekstasis, finds Holter in especially accessible, even pop, territory. Well, occasionally. “If you call out, call out, call out, call out/ I will follow you,” Holter sings above a marching beat and lush, buoying instrumentation in “Our Sorrows,” before descending into a two minute conclusion of spare, wilting despair.
The album continues to undulate in this way throughout, surging with affirmation and then collapsing into doubt. Following the languishing conclusion to “Our Sorrows,” Holter bounces right back into ecstatic spirits with “In the Same Room“. The most uniformly pop-bred song on the album, its bridge sounds like a Debbie Harry riff.
A remarkably talented vocalist as well as a composer (check out her riveting rendition of “Moni Mon Amie” here), her live performance promises to be a rare treat, lending a thrilling sophistication to an often blown-out Rickshaw Stop.
The Big Pink (4/15 at the Great American Music Hall · Tickets)
Bon Iver (4/19 at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium · Tickets)
Wiz Khalifa (4/20 at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium · Sold out — start Craigslisting!)